Gotham is this year’s Most Likely To Succeed show because there are fervent, built-in fans who will immediately flock toward any and all Batman stories. Gotham is also this year’s Most Likely To Disappoint show because it happens to exist in a pop culture world that is overpopulated with Batman stories. It’s a strange conundrum: How do you take one of media’s most popular characters (from books, television, and movies), create him anew and force him to stand out, especially amidst the lingering success of The Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming, questionable Zack Snyder movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Fox does so by taking a unique approach: focusing less on Batman and more on his hometown of Gotham. What results is a great pilot about the crooked core of a rotten city.
There is no Batman in Gotham, only young Bruce Wayne. The pilot begins with a familiar origin story and opens on the night Bruce (David Mazouz) watched his parents get murdered in a dark alley — a tragic event that will later propel him into the superhero that we’re most familiar with. However, Gotham doesn’t follow this journey but instead takes a long detour through the shady streets of Gotham to narrow its focus on two un-superhero heroes: handsome, moralistic new recruit Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie, The O.C. and Southland) and grizzled, crooked Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue, Terriers and Grounded For Life). The two are partners working together to solve the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne though with decidedly different approaches and attachments.
Bullock isn’t too into the idea of working such a high-profile case, one that will shoot him into the spotlight and conflict with his down-low dealings. It takes Gordon all of two seconds talking to Bruce (relating his own childhood trauma) before he is emotionally involved in the case, swearing to Bruce that he’ll catch the murderer. Bullock and Gordon are immediately characterized as opposites in their first scene together; Bullock likes to take a casual, hands-on and guns-on approach whereas Gordon takes a more intellectual, anti-brutality approach to stopping criminals. Bullock is a “slovenly, lackadaisical cynic” and Gordon is a “nice guy” in a town that’s doesn’t reward nice guys. It’s Gotham‘s dark and stormy version of a buddy cop comedy.
The dynamic and gruff chemistry between these partners is a highlight of Gotham because of the actors behind them. Donal Logue is a perfect fit for Harvey Bullock, charmingly rough with whiskey-tinged sarcastic laughs that sell even the cheesiest of pulp dialogue. Logue effortlessly inhabits the world of Gotham — especially this shadier, dirtier world — that it’s as if the city was built around him. Ben McKenzie has a slightly tougher time although he’s been doing his best golden-hearted rebel since his early days on The O.C. (fans will be happy to know he dons a wifebeater in one scene but, alas, no leather cuff bracelet) and later honed his cop skills on Southland. He will, no doubt, assimilate soon enough but maybe he’s just too pretty and clean-cut for Gotham now.
The rest of the cast deserves praise as well. Jada Pinkett Smith is magnificently menacing as gangster Fish Mooney, who is equally concerned with taking care of her enemies as she is with making sure that her hair remains flawless while doing so (no worries: it does). Robin Lord Taylor does a remarkable job as shaky, secretly sinister mess Oswald/Penguin. He’ll likely become the season’s actor MVP. Camren Biocondova as Selina/Catwoman doesn’t say a word, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off her swift actions; she’s still only an observer but I’m already looking forward to seeing more of her character.
Although enjoyable, Gotham is by no means a perfect pilot. It’s full of “Look who it is!” fan service, though your reaction to these scenes is dependent on how integrated you are within the DC universe. It does a solid job introducing the world to people who have never heard of it, or have only heard villains’ names in passing (a sample exchange: “Take it easy, Penguin!” “You know I don’t like to be called that”), with not-too-subtle glimpses at characters like Poison Ivy and Selina Kyle, but it can cause a few groans from viewers. I only consider myself a casual Batman fan — I’ve viewed all of the movies and read the more essential graphic novels, but would be totally schooled in a trivia contest — and even I found myself rolling my eyes at the constant winking to the audience.
At times, the dialogue is cheap and laughable, trying so hard that it’s distracting, and I really hope it gets smoothed out in upcoming episodes. There are also some truly jarring directing choices from Danny Cannon, such as a clichéd interrogation montage that resembles a bad music video (swinging ceiling light, terrible filter, awful song) or an otherwise-great chase scene that suddenly switches to a SnorriCam, making it so reminiscent of a cheap action movie that it takes you out of the scene instead of heightening the action.
Despite those fixable problems, Gotham is certainly a promising show and much has to do with its heavy reliance on the setting, and the side characters that live there, rather than just Bruce’s transformation and superhero antics. It’s Batman without Batman, more riveting cop drama than flashy comic book adaptation, and that’s why it’s so interesting.
Gotham the city is gloomy and corrupt, so Gotham the show uses gorgeous cinematography to reiterate these characteristics at every turn. The visuals are wonderfully bleak and pessimistically beautiful, including sweeping shots of gray skylines and thrilling dashes through shadowy, rain-soaked alleys. Clouds are every-present as if the city is always on the brink of a storm — and maybe it is.